4 ways to embed purpose in business: lessons from sport

Businesses must adopt a purpose beyond the products and services they sell for continued success. Look to sport to get purpose right    




  • Purpose is no longer merely about protecting reputations or complying with social and environmental regulations.
  • The sports industry understands how to tap into the money, but also recognises the potential for social impact and how sport can bring out the best in us.
  • The most powerful brands in the future will be those that truly understand purpose and make it relevant to their products, history and employees.

Profit is an obvious - and necessary - condition for success in business. However, customers, employees and shareholders are increasingly expecting a deeper purpose to underpin a company’s financial returns.

Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of Netscape (now owned by Verizon Media), once remarked that “…saying the purpose of a company is to make money is like saying that the purpose of being alive is to breathe”.

Listen to the CEOs at Davos these days and you will hear a consistent drum beat around the role of business in creating a better world for everyone. Simply pleasing shareholders doesn’t really cut it on the podium anymore and certainly won’t get you on the cover of Time Magazine. 

Major international initiatives, like the UN’s Global Compact now have 9,500+ businesses in 160 countries formally signed up in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Even the US Business Roundtable, a powerful membership body made up of the CEOs of the largest corporates in the US, is recognising the importance of purpose. In the summer of 2019, they released a new statement on the corporate purpose of organisations, placing shareholder interests on the same level as other stakeholders, including customers, suppliers and employees. 

Apart from the rising social, political and investor pressure, a growing body of evidence is showing that a purpose-driven strategy – one that benefits society – can actually fuel revenue and growth. From attracting ethical consumers and retaining ‘Gen Z’ employees to building trust with governments in emerging markets and providing strategic direction in choppy waters, data is showing that helping society is good for business.


Don’t be like a castle on a cliff

So, that all sounds good. But purpose is not something a business can pay lip service to. A product or service that you sell is not a purpose and in the midst of continuous disruption – as is today’s operating environment - businesses with no high-level reason for being are like castles on a cliff edge. 

In addition, without a properly articulated purpose, companies will struggle to develop inspiring narratives, the building blocks of all powerful brands. Without an authentic story about what your business stands for, it becomes difficult to engage anyone emotionally and without engagement your brand is toast. 

The sports world gets this. It’s where tales of triumph and loss are amplified and wrapped in values that inspire – teamwork, giving your all, dealing with victory, handling defeat, sticking together. Sports create a potent cocktail which appeal to hundreds of millions of wildly passionate fans and armies of blue-chip sponsors. A marketeers’ dream on many levels. 

The FIFA World Cup is an inspiring tournament but also an advertising machine reaching half of humanity. The Premier League TV rights are now a multi-billion pound asset. Sports teams and players have become prized jewels in the sponsorship crown of some of the world's biggest brands. The sports industry understands how to tap into the money, but also recognises the potential for social impact and how sport can bring out the best in us.

Nelson Mandela tapped into this to heal post-apartheid wounds (as depicted in the popular movie Invictus). The Brits and the Germans paused hostilities briefly during World War Two to allow each other to play Sunday football.

More recently, a whole eco-system of non-profits has sprung up using sport as a creative way to help tackle many social problems from gang violence and school dropouts to bullying, loneliness, sedentary living and much more.

A growing body of research shows the socio-economic value of this work. This includes, savings to taxpayers from lower health care costs, reduced crime, and improved mental health. This unique blend of commercial and social impact makes sport an interesting space for trialling purpose-led business models, producing transferable lessons for other industries.

Drawing on more than 15 years’ experience engaging brands with community sports, I suggest four key ways to get purpose right in business.


Make purpose central

Purpose is not a marketing tag line, a ‘CSR positioning’ or the exclusive purview of a corporate foundation. Done well, purpose becomes a central organising principle, driving business strategy and vision. The Laureus organisation, co-owned by Richemont and Daimler, exists to ‘celebrate sporting excellence and use the power of sport to transform the lives of children’. In other words, Laureus celebrates sporting excellence as part of a greater end (helping marginalised children). It combines the Laureus World Sports Awards - a sporting version of the Oscars - with a ‘Sport for Good’ charitable foundation. The awards show includes categories on sporting achievement and ‘sport for good’.

“A purpose should electrify the whole business”

A portion of profit (from sponsorship and TV rights) funds the Foundation, which uses sport to help marginalised children around the world. Projects include bridging community divides through basketball in Northern Ireland, reducing gang violence through boxing in Rio’s favelas and developing youth leadership through skateboarding in African villages. These activities are designed purely for social impact, but have a commercial impact too, because they differentiate Laureus from other awards’ shows and create a wider platform for sponsors to bring their own brand stories to life.

For example, the watch maker IWC Schaffhausen (which sponsors the Laureus Awards) produces a limited edition ‘Sport for Good watch’ featuring art work from children in Laureus Foundation projects. The result? More funds for life-changing community sports projects around the world; more cause-motivated customers for IWC; and an inspiring partnership story that commands attention. The Laureus example shows us that when a higher purpose is placed at the heart of a business strategy, there are ripple effects on investors, employees and customers.


Make purpose the ultimate – and - final goal

A business purpose should be an obvious end in itself, meaning it’s the final rationale for why the business exists. It’s the raison d’etre for the entire company: a big bright beacon everyone can get behind.

For example, the mission of the Olympic Games (ranked by Forbes as the 2nd most valuable sports event brand in the world), is to build a better world through sport. There’s no need to ask ‘why’ because a better world is something almost everyone would agree is a good thing to create. In contrast, let’s imagine a less transcendent purpose. For example, ‘creating the most diverse and innovative athletic competition in the world’. This begs follow-on questions. Why do we want innovation (?) or diversity (?) or even an athletic competition (?) A purpose must be obvious, succinct and (crucially) final.

It unveils the deepest truth about why your business is here. It doesn’t need to sound ‘smart’, tap into the pet love of a powerful stakeholder, or use trendy buzz words. It does need to plumb beneath the depths of day-to-day business thinking, explaining why your business exists on the earth. Done well, it becomes a north star setting the direction for decades.


Make purpose relevant

Finding synergies between a business’s purpose and its products and history is the key to authenticity. The trick is to understand the innate aspects of your business which already serve a greater good (or else can do with a little tweaking), and then gear up the entire business to fan the flames of that impact. It’s not about reinventing the business wheel. You simply need to find the route to commercial success which produces the most social good along the way.

“The Laureus example shows us that when a higher purpose is placed at the heart of a business strategy, there are ripple effects on investors, employees and customers”

For example, one of Manchester City FC’s sponsors, Xylem, is a global water company with a purpose to solve water problems. Hence, their sponsorship of Manchester City had an objective to educate a new audience (football fans) about water-related challenges. This led to a creative campaign, which included a project in India using football games to educate local children about water hygiene.

Xylem funded the project and built a water tower next to it, providing clean water for the local community. Man City fans flew to India to help build the tower creating an emotive human story which made international news and inspired millions of our fans on social media. The content worked because it was relevant for Xylem (as water issues were genuinely being solved) and Manchester City (because football was part of the solution). The result was an authentic purpose-led partnership story which cut through.


Make purpose engaging

A purpose should electrify the whole business: sales and marketing teams, the board, suppliers, the shop floor, the front desk and the back office. For this to work, engagement should be easy and uplifting. My current employer the City Football Group, has a long-standing commitment to supporting local communities through football, building on the heritage of its global portfolio of clubs, including Manchester City FC, which was founded 125 years ago by a Vicar’s daughter as a means to strengthen communities in East Manchester.

One way we bring this to life is through an initiative called ‘Cityzens Giving’, which gives fans of Manchester, Melbourne and New York City FC the power to decide how youth-led community football projects are funded around the world. We host a six-week campaign every Nov/Dec for fans to decide how they’d like us to spend a £400,000 charitable fund. There are six projects to choose from.

Fans can vote online or through ‘voting booths’ in local schools and football grounds on match days. Players front the campaign and galvanise fans. Club partners have the option to sponsor particular projects, usually through a mix of funding, product and expertise. In some cases we tailor the cause to resonate with the sponsors’ capabilities, creating a deeper partnership story and more impact. For example, our 2019 campaign featured a project using football to teach children about water hygiene and sanitation in Cape Coast, Ghana, which was supported by the aforementioned water company Xylem.

Projects are supported over multiple years and the young leaders running them get a mix of project funding, leadership training from Man City FC community coaches and access to annual global leadership summits in Manchester.

The result is real social impact. So far, more than 10,000 young people in 20 cities are benefiting. Beneath the figures lie human stories of young community heroes, which inspire and uplift. This creates mass engagement (millions of fans participate and share content), credibility (third-party endorsements, media coverage, awards) and sustained investment (from sponsors who invest product, funds and expertise). All of which builds a bigger platform to change lives through football. It’s a virtuous feedback loop of social and business impact which works because it genuinely improves lives and creatively engages important stakeholders – in our case, fans, sponsors and employees.



Purpose is no longer merely about protecting reputations or complying with social and environmental regulations. It provides a competitive edge in a world where businesses are expected to help build a better and less risky future for all humanity, not just shareholders.

Sport produces interesting and transferable lessons in this arena as it has an innate social and commercial impact. Drawing on these lessons we can sign post how to get purpose right by making it central (at the heart of your business strategy), final (make it the ultimate ‘why’), relevant (link it authentically to company products and history) and engaging (connect key stakeholders creatively).

Tom Pitchon JEMBA2012 is Foundation Director at City Football Group, owner of a global network of football-related businesses, including Manchester City FC, Melbourne City FC and New York City Football Club. The views in this article are his own and are not representative of his employer, City Football Group.